Saturday 11 February 2017

On Fairy Stories by J R R Tolkien

Thanks to my #HLOTRreadalong2017 and rereading of The Hobbit, I have been introduced to several new-to-me bloggers who have proven to be a wealth of knowledge about Middle Earth, Tolkien and high fantasy.

Early on in our discussions about The Hobbit, Nick @One Catholic Life recommended reading Tolkien's essay titled On Fairy Stories (1947) to fully appreciate and understand Tolkien's writing.

That was all the prompting I needed!

I found an online pdf from brainstorm services and began my fantastical journey (link above).

Originally presented in 1939 at the University of St Andrew, Scotland as a lecture, Tolkien eventually published On Fairy Stories, with some tweeking, in 1947.

I propose to speak about fairy-stories, though I am aware that this is a rash adventure. Faerie is a perilous land, and in it are pitfalls for the unwary and dungeons for the overbold. And overbold I may be accounted, for though I have been a lover of fairy-stories since I learned to read, and have at times thought about them, I have not studied them professionally. I have been hardly more than a wandering explorer (or trespasser) in the land, full of wonder but not of information. 
The realm of fairy-story is wide and deep and high and filled with many things: all manner of beasts and birds are found there; shoreless seas and stars uncounted; beauty that is an enchantment, and an ever-present peril; both joy and sorrow as sharp as swords. In that realm a man may, perhaps, count himself fortunate to have wandered, but its very richness and strangeness tie the tongue of a traveller who would report them. And while he is there it is dangerous for him to ask too many questions, lest the gates should be shut and the keys be lost.

What a beautiful, inspiring beginning!

You don't need to study the meaning and purpose of fairy tales professionally to know that they have been important throughout history in telling us 'important things about reality'. The reason they resonate so strongly with us (as children and as adults) is because of the inherent truths behind the fantastic. Fairy tales speak to our deepest fears and ugliest emotions. They provide road maps for our inner lives and they give us hope for a way forward.

Just like Bilbo's and Frodo's quests, the journey through a fairy tale is not just a physical one.

Tolkien goes on to tell us that there are many things that are NOT fairy stories - travellers' tales (Gulliver's Travels, The Time Machine), dream stories (Alice in Wonderland) and beast fables (Brer Rabbit, Peter Rabbit, The Three Little Pigs) are all interesting tales, but they are not part of the faerie world.

A “fairy-story” is one which touches on or uses Faerie, whatever its own main purpose may be: satire, adventure, morality, fantasy. Faerie itself may perhaps most nearly be translated by Magic — but it is magic of a peculiar mood and power, at the furthest pole from the vulgar devices of the laborious, scientific, magician. There is one proviso: if there is any satire present in the tale, one thing must not be made fun of, the magic itself. That must in that story be taken seriously, neither laughed at nor explained away.

A genuine fairy story is also innately 'true'. Not all the characters are 'beautiful or even wholesome', they deal in the 'terrors of the world'. They also give us hope and the joy of a happy ending.

I think it's fair to say that although Tolkien is using the phrase 'faerie' in his essay, we would now use the words high fantasy to more accurately describe what he is talking about here.

The phrase 'high fantasy' was coined in 1971 by Lloyd Alexander. Its definition according to wikipedia is a
 fantasy set in an alternative, fictional ("secondary") world, rather than "the real", or "primary" world. The secondary world is usually internally consistent, but its rules differ from those of the primary world. By contrast, low fantasy is characterized by being set in the primary, or "real" world, or a rational and familiar fictional world, with the inclusion of magical elements.

Therefore, The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings are high fantasy (as is The Game of Thrones series) while Harry Potter and The Chronicles of Narnia are low fantasy.

I got rather tangled up by Tolkien's attempt to describe the relationship between fairy stories and mythology and religion. He referred to it at one point as a 'pot of soup' where 'dainty and undainty' bits have been added in throughout time. King Arthur was his prime example, of a once historical figure, who got added to the pot to later emerge completely mythologised with magical qualities.

Tolkien also spends a lot of time discussing what a writer needs to do to create a successful fantasy story. In some ways, this is the crux of the essay. As the father of high fantasy, Tolkien's thoughts on how to build a believable secondary world with an 'inner consistency of reality' were ground-breaking and insightful.

What really happens is that the story-maker proves a successful “sub-creator.” He makes a Secondary World which your mind can enter. Inside it, what he relates is “true”: it accords with the laws of that world. You therefore believe it, while you are, as it were, inside. The moment disbelief arises, the spell is broken; the magic, or rather art, has failed. You are then out in the Primary World again, looking at the little abortive Secondary World from outside.

Fantasy is a natural human activity. It certainly does not destroy or even insult Reason; and it does not either blunt the appetite for, nor obscure the perception of, scientific verity. On the contrary. The keener and the clearer is the reason, the better fantasy will it make.

Fairy stories offer the adult reader 'fantasy, recovery, escape, consolation'. They also offer desire, aspiration, solace, enchantment and the consolation of a happy ending - the eucatastrophic. Tolkien actually made up a word to describe that wonderful feeling we all get when a truly satisfying happy ending is presented to us in literature. How cool is that! Although, I confess, it's a word I had never heard of until this week. The joy comes when the reader gets that 'sudden glimpse of the underlying reality or truth' within the story.

The consolation of fairy-stories, the joy of the happy ending: or more correctly of the good catastrophe, the sudden joyous “turn” (for there is no true end to any fairy-tale): this joy, which is one of the things which fairy-stories can produce supremely well, is not essentially “escapist,” nor “fugitive.” In its fairy-tale—or otherworld—setting, it is a sudden and miraculous grace: never to be counted on to recur. It does not deny the existence of dyscatastrophe, of sorrow and failure: the possibility of these is necessary to the joy of deliverance; it denies (in the face of much evidence, if you will) universal final defeat and in so far is evangelium, giving a fleeting glimpse of Joy, Joy beyond the walls of the world, poignant as grief.

This is clearly the case with The Hobbit.

We're all thrilled by Smaug's dramatic death, but it is not the end of the story or the drama. Another battle still has to be fought and won. Not everyone we have come to care about survives. The spoils have to be divvied up and Bilbo has to get home again. And, of course, home has not been waiting, unchanged, for Bilbo to return to. Time has changed The Shire too - so that Bilbo's anticipated joy of homecoming is tinged with frustration and regret.

Eucatastrophe and dyscatastrophe.
That's life.

Fantasy is also tinged with the possibility of wish fulfilment. Imagine if we were to discover that the world of Harry Potter and Hogwarts was really real?
That's the hope that a truly good fantasy gives its readers - it could be true, if only it were true, oh what if it were really true!? What if I too could get a letter of admittance into this world, or find that special wardrobe to enter or that rabbit hole to fall down.

It would seem that this element of desire to enter the magical story world was reserved for those labelled as low fantasy. Although, there are enough people out there who have learnt to speak Elvish in the hope of finding Middle Earth one day, to suggest that high fantasy has it's own group of wishful thinkers!

However, I think that Tolkien was probably referring to a different kind of consolation. A more Catholic version of joy and truth.

The peculiar quality of the ”joy” in successful Fantasy can thus be explained as a sudden glimpse of the underlying reality or truth. It is not only a “consolation” for the sorrow of this world, but a satisfaction, and an answer to that question, “Is it true?
Tolkien's On Fairy Stories is the kind of essay to keep on giving to the interested reader. He was a very thoughtful, considered man who took the craft of writing very seriously.

I strongly urge all of you who are along for the #HLOTRreadalong2017 to take the time to read this essay too. It's not too long or too wordy. It is, in fact, a fabulous insight into the mind of a great writer.

This essay is part of my #DealMeIn 2017 challenge ♠♠K♠♠ and my #HLOTRreadlong2017.


  1. Anonymous11/2/17

    I'm having a day off from house painters, house work and visits to the veterinarian (cat keeps me busy)..and planned reading. Perfect afternoon to read essay that you recomend while watching our Dutch speed skaters ...very near your South Korea! Loving The Hobbit, thanks for hosting and extra info!

    1. So glad to hear you're enjoying it. I know it's not one of your usual genres, but it's hard not to like The Hobbit!

  2. Oh that does sound good, not one I recall reading recently!

  3. I'm so glad you found the essay interesting and helpful! I find myself returning to it time and again, as well as to all of Tolkien's works.


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